Thursday, February 24, 2011
“No. I painted it with fire.”
There is no other way to explain the art of enameling to the uninitiated.
Of all the artistic techniques that I have learned over the years, enameling is the least appreciated, the most misunderstood by the public. So I am going to permit myself to post an explanation of my enamel work, starting at the beginning of my exciting venture into ‘fire painting.’
In the past I have always searched for new standards of intensity in color. I sought out ways to produce pieces generous in form, unique in geometry, appealing in texture. And I liked the idea of combining the skills that I had acquired working in metal clay and sheet metals with the painting that had sustained my career years ago. For the artist who produces pieces one at a time, enamel offers infinite possibilities and, often, unexpected results. These were the challenges that attracted me to enameling.
The art evolved in early Greece sometime before 2000 BC, but after the beginning of the bronze age, when soldering with gold and silver became possible. In its earliest and simplest form, vitreous enamel is the fusion of glass granules, or powders, onto metal. Beyond that, it is not so simple.
You see, glass does not really “melt”; instead, it flows when it is heated. We say that glass “fits itself” to the metal when it is fired. The pigments and minerals that give each glass its distinctive color also impart specific physical properties to the glass. These characteristics are known as the coefficient of expansion – the softening point and rate of flow peculiar to each type and color of enamel. To complicate matters, different enamels may soften at the same temperature, but flow at different rates. And if that weren’t enough, the size of the glass granules, the type and thickness of the metal, and the firing time and temperature all interplay to introduce elements of unpredictability to the work. Each piece becomes a unique work of art. Success may come early to the beginner, but then we spend a lifetime learning the intricacies of enameling.
Enamels are available in different hardness. They can be lead-bearing or lead free. Some are transparent, others opaque, metallic, or even opalescent. They come in multiple size grains, or as paintable pastes. All of the above create a rich pallet of possibilities for the enamel artist, and also a mine field of potential disasters.
Left too long in the kiln, the glass will bubble, or burn. Not long enough and the enamel will look like an orange peel. Metals tend to warp when they glow red hot. And the flowing glass will glue itself to the hanger or table that supports the piece inside the kiln if it is not removed at the precise moment. Firing is definitely a ‘hands on’ process.
Accordingly, each piece of enamel art becomes it’s own experiment. As in baking, the final results cannot be known until the cooking is finished. However, the process is forgiving in that the artist can build the piece in layers through multiple firings, adding, correcting, and modifying the work much as a painter would touch up a portrait. For me, this is the most exciting part of the process.
Often I create enamel art using the same technique that I used to paint in watercolor. I fire a white glass “canvas” first, then begin painting in negative, light to dark, layering the work in multiple firings.
Imagine the thrill each time you take a glowing piece out of the kiln and watch it reveal itself to you as it cools in seconds, and the colors, luster and texture come to life. This is truly “painting with fire.”